Thursday, December 24, 2009

NYT:Jiggers: Here Comes the Dictionary!


By A. O. SCOTT
Published: December 23, 2009

True to its title, the new Romanian film “Police, Adjective” is a story of law enforcement with a special interest in grammar. Its climactic scene is not a chase or a shootout, but rather a tense, suspenseful session of dictionary reading.

I’m not being in any way facetious. The movie’s director, Corneliu Porumboiu, whose previous feature was “12:08 East of Bucharest,” has a talent for infusing mundane, absurd moments with gravity and drama as well as humor. The dictionary in that scene is a versatile comic prop, and also an instrument of instruction and humiliation. It is introduced by an officious police captain (Vlad Ivanov, who played the predatory abortionist in Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) who wants to teach his underling a lesson.

To say exactly what is learned would not only spoil the ending — this is a cop movie, after all, with a bit of a twist in the tail — but would also blunt the bite of Mr. Porumboiu’s mordant satire. So let’s just note that the Romanian word for “police” is used as an adjective in two ways. The first usage applies to (I quote the English subtitles) “a novel or film involving criminal happenings that are in some degree mysterious, resolved in the end through the ingenuity of a police officer or detective.” In an unexpected and somewhat underhanded way, that describes the action of “Police, Adjective.” It is at least as relevant, however, that the other cited use of the adjective is to modify the word “state.”

“All states depend on the police,” says the captain, waving off not only his country’s specific history, but also a possibly significant distinction between its old totalitarian regime and its new democratic order. Mr. Porumboiu, whose hapless characters debate whether the revolution of 1989 really took place in their corner of the country, is not making an argument that nothing has changed in Romania since the bad old days. Rather, he is investigating the nature of bureaucratic authority and the perverse, crushing effects it can have on an individual.

His protagonist is Cristi, a detective played with brusque, weary likability by Dragos Bucur, who in previous roles (notably in Radu Muntean’s “Boogie” and Cristi Puiu’s “Stuff and Dough”) has embodied the malaise of early adulthood in post-Communist Romania. Cristi is working on a case that would, by the standard of American television cop shows, be less than trivial. He is gathering evidence against a high school student who smokes a little hashish and has been informed on by a friend and smoking buddy.

Cristi suspects that the one he calls the Squealer wants to get the other boy out of the way and make a move on his girlfriend, who also hangs out with them. And as Cristi follows them, stakes out their houses and files his reports, he feels more and more uneasy. In other countries, he explains to a prosecutor who is a little more sympathetic than the captain, the casual possession and use of small quantities of hashish is not really a police matter at all.

The crux of the drama in “Police, Adjective” is the tension between Cristi’s professional duty and his conscience, a conflict the dictionary is called on to adjudicate. And the substance of the movie is a series of slowly paced scenes that follow him through his routines. He deals with pushy or recalcitrant co-workers, trudges through days of surveillance work without changing his sweater and returns home for desultory conversations with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), who matter-of-factly tells him that things are not working out between them and then continues as if nothing of consequence had been said.

At another point, as Anca, a teacher and something of a linguistic pedant, listens to a romantic pop song over and over on her computer, she and Cristi have a debate about images and symbols in literature. Why, he wonders, don’t people just stick with the literal meanings of words, and forget about all the fancy stuff. His position is a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.

This can be called realism, but that sturdy old word is not quite sufficient to describe “Police, Adjective,” which is at once utterly plain, even affectless, and marvelously rich. Mr. Porumboiu’s style might be called proceduralist. Like Cristi writing his reports, Mr. Porumboiu scrupulously records details in a manner that only seems literal-minded because his technique is invisible, and his intelligence resolutely unshowy.

“Police, Adjective” tells a small story well. At the level of plot, it is consistently engaging, and the psychology of the ambivalent detective, a staple of film noir, is given a new twist in the character of Cristi. But the more closely you look, the more you see: a movie about a marriage, about a career in crisis, about a society riven by unstated class antagonisms and hobbled by ancient authoritarian habits. So much in this meticulous and moving film is between the lines, and almost nothing is by the book.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE

Opens on Wednesday in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Written, directed and produced by Corneliu Porumboiu; director of photography, Marius Panduru; edited by Roxana Szel; production designer, Mihaela Poenaru; released by IFC Films. In Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Dragos Bucur (Cristi), Vlad Ivanov (Anghelache), Irina Saulescu (Anca), Ion Stoica (Nelu), Marian Ghenea (the Prosecutor) and Cosmin Selesi (Costi).

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